Doc: Dealing with a Rescue

Cash and Lily are getting older and are about ready to retire, so I decided it was time to get a new dog. Since I’d rather deal with anything instead of a puppy, I walked to the Martinez Animal Shelter (just a couple of blocks from my house) and asked them for the dogs they couldn’t adopt out. From the short list of dogs I could take, I chose a blue nose pit bull they thought was about 15 months old. (I now believe he’s younger than that, given some behavioral traits, but we’ll never know for sure.) Known problems were escape artistry (he’d been picked up as a stray three times, and adopted out twice), and — the big flag — leash reactivity/frustration that led to him twisting around when unable to get to a dog, and instead putting his teeth on a human. (He didn’t bite down, but it’s still a big flag.)

These were problems I could deal with! Heck, I deal with these problems all the time!

I walked him home and put him in my car while I put all my other dogs in the back yard. Then I walked him into the house and put him in an x-pen. He refused to go in a crate, and an x-pen doesn’t have a top, so since I didn’t know how aggressive he might be to the other dogs (and if he’d just leap the x-pen), I enlisted my neighbor’s aid. She let dogs in one at a time, starting with the calm Lily, while I held Doc’s leash and a squirt bottle, inside the x-pen with him.

As it turned out, a squirt from the squirt bottle pretty much stopped the aggression. Within half an hour he was settled in the x-pen, relatively calm, the dogs were inside, and I was on the couch (where I could squirt him as needed!).

All of this is actually not what I want to talk about.

When you rescue a dog you don’t really know what problems they’re going to have. Doc, as it turned out, had wonderful off-leash social skills and, compared to what I normally deal with, mild to medium leash reactivity.

You get a better idea of what you’re dealing with when you get a dog from a rescue where they do fostering, but even then you’re not going to get a great idea. A foster probably has multiple dogs, which will change the way your new adoptee behaves. (In one notable case, a client of mine adopted a dog that had been fostered with a bunch of other dogs. Within a few weeks of bringing him home, he was so dog aggressive that he couldn’t get within a block of a dog without becoming incredibly violent. Things can be that different.)

Within the first few days of adopting Doc it became clear that the biggest problem wasn’t leash reactivity, but separation anxiety. This isn’t something the shelter could have seen. I started working on getting him crate trained by feeding him in an open crate — he has crate trauma, and didn’t trust it at all at first — and in the meantime, took him with me everywhere. When left on his own, he destroyed things or escaped the house. (My neighbor caught him, thankfully!) We are in our sixth week now, and he can be crated for 5 hours at a time while I’m off running errands or working. After that, my assistant comes and gets him out for a few hours.

Other instant problems were problems I consider a lack of manners: he jumped on furniture, people, had no sense of personal space (a problem mostly when I’m eating), chewed up things that weren’t dog toys. All of these I’d kind of expected, and for the most part I took a squirt bottle to him if he broke one of these rules. I also used positive reinforcement: he might get a knee in the chest for trying to jump on me, but then I’d ask him to sit and reward him when he did. When I pushed him away because I was eating and he stayed away (this usually takes 4-8 pushes), I told him he was very good and gave him extra pets. When I saw him consider the counter and decide not to jump up, I told him what a smart dog he was and gave him more pets!

The other instant problem was housebreaking. He’d spent most of his life in a kennel in the shelter, on his own, or probably in a yard (which he escaped from!). Each time I caught him peeing in the house, I chased him outside while scolding him. Each time I took him out and he peed outside, I rewarded him. It took him a few weeks to get this, especially since my bigger priority was everything else. You can only ask a dog to learn so many things at once! I knew I could get him housebroken, and just needed to keep an eye on him to avoid as many accidents inside as possible.

All of this I learned in the first few days, and spent the next several weeks working on these issues. (Some of it we’re still working on; jumping on guests, for instance, and the separation anxiety will take months. He also still has some limited leash reactivity, but it’s very minor and only occasional.)

But here’s the thing: when you adopt a new dog, you have a 4-6 week honeymoon period. During that time, they’re on their best behavior. All of this was stuff Doc either just didn’t know, but learned quickly, or behavior that was really a problem. The faster you start work on these behaviors, the more likely they’ll change during that honeymoon period.

The other thing is that as you leave the honeymoon period, other, less ingrained behaviors crop up. Usually they start small and, if you don’t do something, grow. The same thing happened with Doc.

At about week three, he started resource guarding. Not just any resource, oh no. I was the resource he wanted to guard. It was very small; he and I were cuddling, Cash came and snuffled him around his neck, and he lifted his lip and gave a small snap.

It was small enough that I could have ignored it. But here’s the thing: old bad habits (and new bad habits) start small, and then grow if left unchecked. So instead of ignoring it I shoved him off the couch with a firm, “No!” I allowed him back up immediately, petted Cash, and petted Doc when Doc tolerated Cash. After that, I became very aware of petting them both and rewarding Doc for tolerance when Cash came to say hi while we were cuddling. (Cash isn’t a cuddler; he gets too hot!)

That wasn’t the end of it, though. Twice more the next day he tried it. Once I did as above, and the second time I also put him in his crate for a twenty-minute time out. (Five minutes will do, but I was too lazy to get up again right away. After five minutes your dog has forgotten why they’re in there. If you leave them in there they aren’t learning anything, so he spent 15 minutes just chilling in his crate, chewing on his bones. Since he does, in fact, need to learn to rest in his crate, he actually was learning something constructive!) That was a week ago; he’s had a couple of lip-curls since then trying to guard me, which I respond to with a shove away but not much more (the annoying punishment equaling an annoying crime), and I’ve been very aware of setting him up to tolerate the other dogs, and then loving on him for doing so. The problem seems to be getting better.

Now we’re at the six week mark, and today for the first time he tried to resource guard his food bowl. This resulted in me pushing his face away with the flat of my hand (NOT a technique I recommend for many, many reasons, but my hand was the only thing I had available. I couldn’t bump into him with my body, because the other dog was between us. I pushed his head quickly but gently, to get his attention and stop his lunging at the other dog) and then shoving him away from his bowl, out the back door (which was also handy). I picked up his food, let him back in, and set his food back down while the other dog was still standing there. I kept the other dog from sniffing his bowl, and praised Doc for being tolerant, then took the other dog away. A few minutes later I watched first Lily and then Cash sniff around the base of his bowl while he ate. He watched them both with one eye (white of the eye showing, much stress!) but didn’t react, and I praised him like crazy before calling them away. I want to apply a little pressure so he has to choose what to do, but then allay the pressure when he does the right thing. (This is actually negative reinforcement; removing something = negative, to increase a behavior = reinforce. The behavior I’m increasing here is tolerance, and the thing I’m removing to increase his tolerance is the annoyance of the dogs. The removal of the dogs is actually a reward.)

Do I think we’re done finding new things he’s going to be weird about? Not at all! In fact, I’ve been watching him play and he has this habit of grabbing other dogs by the scruff while they’re wrestling. I think I’m going to have to step in and tell him to stop; it’s too rough for most dogs to enjoy.

So, what’s the point of this post? What you see and what you’re told isn’t always what you get. When adopting a dog, watch the behaviors for weeks afterward. When they’re comfortable with you and finally settling in is when most people stop looking for hiccups, but that’s really the time to start. When you’re extra vigilant is when you end up with a rescue that’s a beautiful companion you can take anywhere!


PS for more updates on Doc and what we’re doing, as well as photos and shenanigans, you can head on over to our Facebook page!